Advent, Christmas and the Incarnation
Advent, Christmas. And the Incarnation
Editorial FAITH MAGAZINE November - December 2015
There has been no shortage of good copy for newspapers this year, but back in the early summer, somewhere between the General Election, and before terrorist horrors in Tunisia, there was a brief few days when not much seemed to be happening. And so a rather obscure campaigning group was able to get some headlines by announcing that God should be addressed as “she”.
The thing had a faintly '70s flavour – Daily Mail headlines sounding appropriately shocked etc – and the story, as it emerged from the layers of cliché, was not particularly impressive: something called the “Transformations Steering Group” had announced that Anglican bishops should promote more “expansive language and imagery about God”. And the Transformations Steering Group turns out to be a gathering of lobbyists from groups with 70s-style acronyms, the Cof E's website informing us that “The Steering Group comprises 2 representatives proposed by each of the constituent groupings (DARC, NADAWM, WATCH & AWESOME) plus a senior woman from the Northern Province”.
We've had an awful lot of this
And these good ladies had items in the newspapers and on the internet, the Daily Telegraph announcing that: “Hilary Cotton, chair of Women And The Church (Watch), the group which led the campaign for female bishops, said the shift away from the traditional patriarchal language of the Book of Common Prayer in already at an “advanced” stage in some quarters”. And so on.
So far, so not very newsworthy really. We really have had an awful lot of this. But perhaps it does offer an opportunity to explain again, to a tired Western culture that has a sort of exhaustion about it, the great reality of God. They have become bored with God in part precisely because his transcendent glory has been blurred and muddled in their minds by the noise from groups with trendy acronyms. They have been given stones instead of bread and, still hungry, are now searching elsewhere. People are tired, and a bit lonely – and because the great reality of our sexual differences is something they do know about, and suspect may be of greater significance than the dear ladies of DARC and WATCH and NADAWM and so on can fathom – they think that the truth of God is too remote and bleak and can never really be discovered.
But he isn't, and he loves us – loves so much that he sent his only Son, born of a woman, to come and live among us, to live as one of us, to be one of us, to suffer and die for us. We belong with him and to him, and, yes, the whole male/female “thing” is all part of this.
God has revealed himself to us
Because, dear ladies, God is not a “she”. From the beginning, he has spoken to us, and revealed himself to us – first through the prophets and then, in these latter times by himself. And Jesus Christ was incarnate as a male, and no, this wasn't a mistake, and it wasn't without meaning. The whole message is a nuptial one – the whole plan from “the beginning” (Gen 1:1, John 1:1) to the glorious Marriage Feast of the Lamb (Rev 19:9) is a message that is also written into the Incarnation, and also, awesomely, into our own lived experience. We are male and female because God and his Church are united in a marriage bond. The male/female imagery isn't just important – it's central.
Alas, the notion that God somehow got the timing wrong for his Incarnation, is now quite often regarded as somehow standard. Discussions begin with “Of course, if Jesus were alive today...” and there is a sort of assumption that this is in itself a really profound statement, a sort of deeply-held wisdom. But it isn't. Because, of course, as our Evangelical brethren put it rather well, if sometimes rather sentimentally: “He IS alive!” - and, more to the point, his Bride, the Church, is alive too and we are all caught up in this drama and are living together in the Lord's own era, knowing him, loving him, serving him and awaiting his return in glory.
Another cliché – this one a bit newer: “It's just a no-brainer!” This was said, in, I think, genuine bewilderment, to to writer of this feature, during a discussion about same-sex marriage. The young lady – an RE teacher, no less - just “couldn't see any problem” with two men getting married, and couldn't see any need to think about it too deeply – no brain action required on this one at all. Easy. Obviously, you accept the current line. Obviously. I mean, everyone's been wrong about that for, like, centuries. I mean, like, for ever. Right?
Using our brains
But we do need to use our brains. This male/female thing is deeper than we thought. This Bridegroom/Bride thing matters a lot. There were pagan priestesses of old – every religion in the area around the Middle East had priestesses, God's own chosen people, the Jews, were unique in not having them. God had his own plan, his truth, his way, his life. And because from the beginning the plan was that, in his love, he would actually join in with his own creation and infuse it all with his love and his truth, he actually wrote the plan into our very bodies, creating us as male and female in his own image. So that we would understand. So that we would be able to grasp the truth when it was revealed to us.
Bit of a brainer: you do need to think about it. You do need to watch, you do need to find it awesome. Not all those acronyms are wrong: if the ladies of WATCH and AWESOME and the other less pronounceable groups would like to do so, we could have a rich and useful discussion about all of this. There is always more to learn about God, and the learning is exciting. Such learning begins with prayer and the Scriptures, it unfolds with pondering the vast riches of the centuries of study that have gone before us, it deepens in thought and contemplation, it enlarges the mind with much reading and listening and questioning. It doesn't wholly eliminate lobbying, it even allows the odd cliché, it certainly usefully takes note of the “signs of the times”, it relishes answering new questions and echoing old ones. It assumes that Truth is to be found, and that God is not hiding it from us, that the Church is no mere human institution, that God is bigger than human mistakes. It allows for the truth and drama of the Incarnation to assume the dramatic central it must assume if the thing is true. If God really became one of us: if human beings matter that much, if God really was a baby in a woman's womb, then this male/female thing really matters. His maleness matters. Mary's femaleness matters. The Church matters.
Development of doctrine
Development of doctrine often emerges with the assistance of questions raised as heresies hover – only because of Arius did we get the Nicene creed, only through Nestorius the richer insights into Christology. Shorn of its trite cliches, the question “Is God a she?” isn't unhelpful: but it's a question, not an answer. Mother Church enjoys her children's questions, and knows that in answering them much can be learned and fresh insights gained. She wants her children to work on their scholarship, she enjoys their efforts, she has authority to discern what is useful and what is not, she insists on a certain rigour. Allow her to get this into focus.
The Transformation Steering Group might like to take a break. The task of attempting to to transform God can be a bit tiring. There is also a need to step back from a task, and question its usefulness. A child tapping on a window-pane may think he is making the rain stop. Our studies and reflections must be of a different order. God transforms us, not the other way round. His reality has been revealed to us, and for a purpose. Take time out to ponder, ladies.
As we all should: enjoy Christmas, and encounter Christ anew.